Lucy Llewellyn is a Certified Animal Assisted Play Therapist ™️ from the UK. She has been trained by Dr Rise VanFleet and Tracie Faa-Thompson of the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy ®️. Lucy is a member of the British Association of Play Therapists. In this article, she shares with us her experiences of working with a dog in her playroom.
As my assistant is heading for retirement. I am musing on the specialness she has brought to our Play Therapy sessions and how she ignited the spark that jump started the therapeutic process.
Lykke (pronounced Luca) has golden hair, big brown eyes, a big button nose and four legs! She is a rescued Lurcher, whose warmth towards children and quirky personality has endeared her to many.
Lykke and I have trained with Dr Risë VanFleet and Tracie Faa-Thompson to become a Certified Animal Assisted Play Therapy ™️ team. This is so much more than having a nice dog, just as Play Therapy is much, much more than playing with children. The courses are hard work, intensive and great fun. I particularly like that Animal Assisted Play Therapy®️ considers the dog’s strengths and likes, so it is mutually enjoyable for the dog and child. It is a great model for developing relationship skills and considering another’s feelings as well as your own.
Some of the dogs I have met at the trainings are high energy, whose skills are in agility and learning new tricks. Others are more laid back and enjoy being groomed and read to.
Lykke is who she is. She has learnt some play skills and will drink from the tea cups at a tea party, roll the dice in board games and search for the child if they hide. She can set off a police siren to call for help and operate a shop till. She is active in the sessions and sometimes she decides just to lean against a child and be with them. This really helped an ADHD child we were working with to focus and become more grounded. Lykke is off lead during the play therapy sessions so she chooses how she wants to engage.
Lykke also brings spontaneity into the work. In a very traumatic session, the child was playing through a terrible storm where the wind blew, the rain caused rivers to form, and the family all got separated and lost, she became my reflecting partner. Together we looked into the sand tray, and I reflected the play by telling Lykke about the terrible storm, how the children were lost, how they were just about to be rescued when the bridge broke and they were swept away… We had a conversation about how worried we were…it was just awful…the baby was gone…..and so on. Lykke then surprised me by stepping into the sand tray and digging the baby out. This was unplanned and I reflected to the child it was so awful that Lykke couldn’t bear it (but I could put the baby back and Lykke could sit elsewhere if the child preferred). The child was overjoyed at being found. She named it “she found me!” This was a very significant point in the child’s therapy and the child went on to embody the “lost baby”. Lykke was initially the one to “prepare” the baby’s bottle and provide nurture. The attachment relationship for the child started with Lykke, then generalised to me and to the adoptive family.
We have worked mainly with children who are looked after or adopted, aged 3-17. Some are too traumatised to trust an adult, let alone want to go into a room alone with one. These children do not come to work with me, however, as their focus is on working and building their attachment with Lykke. This then generalises to include me and other humans in their network. We have seen some amazing results. Our approach is child centred and mostly child led, though I do need to ensure the play is mutually enjoyable and safe for the children and for Lykke. Lykke always has a choice whether to become involved or to remove herself. As in all relationships, it’s a 2 way process. I’ve been trained in canine communication so I can have a better idea on whether she enjoys things. If she doesn’t, it’s part of the therapeutic process to look at how to make things more enjoyable, or feelings of rejection,
In addition to children with other difficulties, we have worked with children who have hurt animals and who lack empathy or don’t recognise their actions could be hurtful. In a more directive way we have covered touch and keeping safe, learning how to groom Lykke and watching what she likes, nurturing her with food and water, and learning how to make friends and keep them. The children develop skills in building relationships and “seeing” the animal as a sentient being, rather than something for their use. Power and control are often themes we see in traumatised and abused children. In AAPT®️ we work hard on reciprocal relationships and real choices. It’s for that reason we like animals who will react (safely) and display emotion, rather than tolerate interactions they don’t enjoy.
The AAPT training covers introducing children to dogs, how to keep safe and understand canine body language. I am always close by to ensure both the dog and child are enjoying the interaction and if I see stress signals, I can point out that Lykke is starting to look uncomfortable, allowing the children to change their behaviour or for me to intervene.
Lykke also has some “problems” for which I can ask the child for help. Lykke gets worried meeting new dogs, so the child and I can brainstorm what I could do to help her when she gets worried or scared. Often the children we see do have trouble understanding the rules of friendships and meetings, so they have some great ideas.
Lykke’s background as a dog who wasn’t wanted, was moved from birth family to a rescue, was adopted, then returned, resonates with many children. They cannot understand why such a lovable dog had so many placement moves. Again, this is often their own experience and it can help them recognise that it is not their fault when placements don’t work out. It can also give hope that the right home will come along, where they can be valued and appreciated for who they are.
It is hard to describe how much Lykke’s involvement has brought a new dimension to the therapeutic process. Research has shown how involving an animal helps release oxytocin, the bonding hormone. It is the human therapist, however, who enables the sessions to work so well.
People who know me know how passionate I am about the therapeutic benefits of including animals in Play Therapy. I am very clear, however, that to do this both safely and ethically, it is essential to know what you are doing. I would highly recommend attending the Animal Assisted Play Therapy™ training run by Dr Risë VanFleet and Tracie Faa-Thompson. They provide this training worldwide.
The training encompasses online theoretical training, in-person training with dogs and horses, followed by supervision leading to Certification. I became a Certified Animal Assisted Play Therapist in 2015, an Instructor and Supervisor in 2020.
Information can be found on the website for the International Institute for Animal Assisted Play Therapy ®️ (www.iiaapt.org) the UK training dates are on: www.aaptbaseuk.com and I recommend the book “Animal Assisted Play Therapy” by Dr Rise VanFleet and Tracie Faa Thompson which is available from :email@example.com.